What a delight it is to be here today for this very important occasion. I thank Gail Kelly for hosting today, but also for her personal commitment to enhancing the lives of people in the Pacific. Gail and I have spoken on a number of occasions about things that we can do together, the Australian Government and Westpac, and this is a great example today.
Greg Pawson, thank you for your introduction and your explanation of what the MoU is all about, High Commissioner Charles Lepani from Papua New Guinea, who has become a very dear and trusted friend of mine over a number of years, and I’m delighted that Charles is here today, and Losana Ravuso from Fiji, it’s wonderful to meet you and see you here.
I’ve just been speaking with your Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola. He’s on his way to the Middle East and sadly there is a situation involving Fijian peacekeepers that has greatly concerned Fiji, and Australia is doing all we can to assist. I know that our people have just met with Foreign Minister Kubuabola to provide him with all the information that we have about the circumstances surrounding the Fiji peacekeepers in Syria and let us hope and pray that they will be returned home as soon as possible.
Last Monday I was in Samoa at the Small Island Developing States Conference of the United Nations and the theme of this conference was about partnerships, private sector partnerships. Now a decade ago that would not have been the theme of the Small Island Developing States Conference, the theme would have been all about foreign aid and how foreign aid can be spent and delivered in small island developing states. The emphasis was quite different. The focus was on leveraging the private sector in the small island nations, as well as in those countries who support them through economic partnerships. Today’s event exemplifies all that we were talking about last Monday.
This is a significant event because it is the first time that the Australian Government has signed an agreement of this kind with a leading financial institution. The Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian Government and Westpac builds on this Government’s policies in the field of economic diplomacy and development assistance for it links inclusive economic growth with private sector engagement and with the economic empowerment of women-all designed to lift standards of living and the MoU is focussed on the Pacific as it should be.
The Pacific is our home, this is where we live, it’s our neighbourhood and the nations of the Pacific are our friends and partners as well as our geographic neighbours. The focus is particularly on the large populations in the countries of PNG and Fiji and they are both longstanding and very dear friends of Australia so we are very pleased that the focus of this MoU is specifically on those two nations but we know that it will have an effect across the Pacific.
Westpac of course has been involved in the Pacific for generations. I was told that the first branch opened in Fiji in 1901 so Westpac has had 113 years of experience in the Pacific. What this Memorandum of Understanding does is bring together the experience and skills of the Australian Government in our development assistance programs in the Pacific, our desire to be in economic partnership with nations of the Pacific, as well as the expertise and skills and commitment of Westpac to improve the access to financial services, therefore supporting inclusive economic growth.
We are very keen to bring innovative and creative approaches to the way we deliver assistance in the Pacific. We have moved away from the old stereotypes of ‘aid donor’ and ‘aid recipient’. We now talk about and engage in economic partnerships with our friends and neighbours in the Pacific. In this way we are able to meet each other’s aspirations and objectives, understand more of what Australia can provide and what countries expect or need.
We do have a challenge in the area of financial services, no question. About 80 per cent of people in the Pacific do not have access to basic financial services and that can include a simple savings account. Therefore they are limited in their capacity to save, to send and transfer money, to provide for their families, for their businesses - so some of these basic financial services are just inaccessible for people particularly in some of the more remote locations.
So we want to think differently and creatively about how we can provide this kind of support and we’re delighted that Westpac has a similar mindset. We’re on the same page when it comes to the creative ways that we can use technology, for example, to access some remote locations and also provide access to a broad range of financial services including reducing the cost of remittances, including insurance, life insurance, including loans and other forms of support.
Within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade we are establishing what I’ve called the Development Innovation Hub - although I’m sure we’ll come up with a much more exciting name than that by the time we launch I - but within this Development Innovation Hub we are seeking to attract the best talent we can, from not only within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but across the public sector and from the private sector both nationally and internationally. We’re going to gather these talented, creative people into our development hub and have them come up with different ways of doing things, dealing with some of the intractable development problems that we have in the Pacific - not do what we’ve always done and hope for a different outcome, but do things differently.
The MoU with Westpac is an example of innovative thinking, bringing together all our experiences, skills and commitment to achieve better outcomes. I’m pleased that there’s a particular focus on the economic empowerment of women because of course this is fundamental to the Australian Government’s new aid paradigm. We are focussing on economic growth, we are focussing on private sector engagement, we are focussing on the economic empowerment of women because women make up so much of the economy in many of the Pacific nations.
For example, in the Solomon Islands 90 per cent of the market activity is undertaken by women and I’ve visited the bustling, exciting, dynamic, vibrant markets in Solomon Islands, in PNG, in Samoa, across the Pacific, but we need to ensure that this activity is more profitable, that it provides more opportunities for women and that means providing access to finance so they can take their market activities to the next level.
There are so many exciting opportunities for local suppliers, local stallholders to be involved in a much broader range of activity than just their domestic economy. For example, Carnival Cruises is one of the major cruise operators into the Pacific and they are providing opportunities for local businesses to provide services, goods, provisions for their cruise ships in the Pacific. The Australian Government is supporting this private sector engagement because it makes the nations more resilient, makes them less vulnerable to external shocks, makes them more self-reliant and that’s important.
On the question of remittances, this is an exceedingly important issue for nations in the Pacific. I think Tonga and Samoa have the highest proportion of their GDP dependent on remittances from elsewhere. Australia is an expensive place for remittances to be sent home and we’ve learnt that up to 15 per cent of the money sent can be taken in transfer fees. So we want to be much more competitive. We’ve put up a website to show the charges for remittances for countries including Australia, Canada, New Zealand. A bit of competitive pressure I think is a very good thing.
This is also a priority of the G20, to ensure that we can get lower cost remittances which is so important for the economic stability of countries in our region. So this brings together all of the thinking of the Abbott Government. This really is at the heart of what we’re seeking to do in the development assistance space. It’s focussing on inclusive economic growth, on the private sector, on the empowerment of women and lifting standards of living in the respective countries.
Gail I could not be more delighted to be involved in this. We’re very proud to be in partnership with Westpac that we know will make discernable differences in the countries in our region and I want to thank you for hosting today. It is an historic event and one that I’m sure will bring real results for our friends and neighbours in the Pacific.
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